While a group of equestrian students, ages ranging from 11 to 50 and beyond, took a break from their lessons, Teresa Friedman hopped on her horse, Poco Socks, for a quick, bareback ride. Not all of the students are at Friedman's level, but nearly all of them showed significant progress in riding skills during the course of a two-day clinic they took part in.
Friedman has been a student of Ben Balow for nearly three years. Balow is a world champion of horse reining who taught the horse-riding clinic on Saturday and Sunday at American Ranch Equestrian Center. He is also the head trainer and manager at American Ranch.
"We've got a lot of 'green riders' in this clinic, and some with some experience," said Balow. "It's a foundation of general horsemanship. We're working on control, and giving riders more confidence. Some of them know how to ride, but now they know some better ways."
Horses have been a part of Balow's life since childhood.
"For the last 25 years I've trained horses and taught riders, before that I rode for a living," said Balow. "For the last two years I've been really focused on teaching, but I'm working on becoming a certified Olympic judge."
Balow said that he is becoming a certified horse-reining judge, and that the event may join the Olympics in 2012.
"The mentality on training has changed over the years. The old-time horse trainers knew they'd learned it the hard way, and they'd give it to you that way. The new-style horse riding clinics are extremely popular, now, as an alternative," said Balow. "I try to find a balance of the old and new, teaching tried-and-true methods, but also incorporating all the new refinements."
Balow said the struggle between the old equestrian traditions and the new ways apply to all horse aficionados, not just those learning the art.
"I think there's flaws with both views, and strengths with both. Cowboys would view their horses as utility, and new horse people think of it as a hobby," said Balow. "I know some cowboy-types who are a little too hard on their horses, but I also know some new horse people who treat their horses like pets, like a dog or something, and that doesn't teach the horse the way to behave properly. You always need a middle ground."
One of Balow's students who has trained with him for nearly three years, Chris Lytle, observed that the skills of the riders participating in the clinic had shown marked improvement within the short two-day span of the event.
"Their hands are more relaxed, their sitting position has improved, and they seem more in control of the horses," said Lytle. "The biggest thing is that they seem to have more confidence. It's a lot of improvement to see happen in two days."
Lytle credited Balow's emphasis on small class sizes and personalized training as a factor in his success as a teacher.
"I know some clinics are massive, and you just see things done, and try to commit it to memory, but Ben really makes you feel it," said Lytle. "He's a real pro, and an award winner, and you can tell, but he's also very kind and positive. That really helps students stay positive, and build confidence."
Balow paused from complimenting one of his younger students on her riding form, and said, "I've already won my awards. Now, it's my students' awards I'm excited about. I'm very proud of my students. It's their dedication that makes it possible, and all the credit goes to them.
All the proceeds from Balow's clinic are going toward the Pioneer Park Equestrian Center Association's plan to build the public equestrian center.